Midcoast Maine is home to America’s oldest commercial sailing vessels, the Schooner Lewis R. French of Camden and the Schooner Stephen Taber of Rockland, and the two of them have seen it all. As the oldest still operating commercial sailing vessels in the U.S., they have survived the Great Depression, both world wars, and the 1918 and 2020 pandemics. This summer – their 150th years afloat – they will set sail once again, plying the East coast as they have for a century and a half.
The Lewis R. French was built in South Bristol and launched into Christmas Cove April 28,1871. She spent 100 years as a cargo vessel in Maine hauling wood, granite and bricks, to name just a few of her cargoes; survived a fire at the dock in the 1920s; and served as a sardine freighter under power until being rebuilt in the 1970s as a Windjammer. She is the last remaining Maine-built schooner of the 1800s.
Captain Garth Wells and his wife, Jenny Tobin, have owned and operated Schooner Lewis R. French since 2004.
In a nod to her birthdate, the French launched from North End Shipyard in Rockland on April 28, 2021, after a brief haul out for her Coast Guard inspection. It was at the North End Shipyard that the French was thoroughly rebuilt for the passenger trade by John Foss, now captain of the Schooner American Eagle, in the 1970s. Foss found the Lewis R. French in Lubec, brought her down to Rockland and spent three years restoring her. The French has sailed as a Maine Windjammer ever since.
Schooner Stephen Taber was built at the Van DeCott Shipyard in Glenwood Landing, New York., and launched on Oct 19, 1871. After serving as a cargo vessel and yacht, surviving a collision with a tanker in New York harbor in 1899 and outlasting most other coasting schooners, she was rebuilt for the Maine Windjammer trade in the 1940s. She is the oldest continuously sailing vessel in the country. Captain Noah Barnes and his wife Jane Barrett Barnes, have also owned and operated their vessel, Stephen Taber, since 2004.
These Windjammers were originally built to haul cargo, but now serve as one of the top travel destinations in the state of Maine. Both vessels sail each week with 20 or so guests on overnight cruises along Maine’s pristine coast. Guests are given the rare opportunity to enjoy an authentic sailing adventure with the magnificent coastline and islands of Maine as their backdrop. Cargoes of these National Historic Landmarks may have changed over time, but these schooners continue to earn their keep.
The COVID -19 pandemic proved incredibly difficult for these businesses. The French did not operate at all last year and the Taber operated at one-quarter capacity. Through the support of the state business grants and their devoted supporters both businesses survived the 2020 season and now are preparing to set sail in 2021. Both Windjammers kick off their sailing seasons with cruises on Memorial Day weekend with COVID guidelines in place, and both are members of the Maine Windjammer Association.